Precision Fabrics achieves goal of 1 million safe work hours
VINTON–Motorists passing the Precision Fabrics plant in Vinton generally only notice the facility because of the banners posted on the lawn publicizing community events like the Vinton Christmas parade or the Dogwood Festival; but there is now a new banner hanging on the fence at PFG that reads “Congratulations on 1,000,000 safe work hours”.
“Safety and wellness are part of our fabric” is not just a catch-phrase or slogan for Precision Fabrics Group (PFG). They take the statement very seriously.
With over 230 employees running 300 plus weaving and support machines twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it is very challenging to reach one million safe hours with no employee having lost time from work due to an accident.
Mike Maust, plant manager since 2009, attributes this rare accomplishment to the dedication and determination of what he calls “the best work force in the world.”
“PFG has the best group of associates you will ever find,” said Maust. “Our more experienced workers teach the newer employees early in their training not just the technical skills, but safety and housekeeping, what to look for, what to be careful of.”
“We have achieved those million safe work hours because our associates understand that safety is important not only in and of itself, but because it affects business,” said Maust. “Working around moving equipment always requires high levels of awareness. All of our associates have to keep safety in mind as part of everything they do at work.”
Maust also credits their onsite occupational nurse with helping the company to achieve their million safe hours. Employed by Carilion, Mary Margaret Tuthill spends four days each week at PFG. In addition to normal nursing duties, she is engaged with the associates in setting safety standards and reaching safety goals.
“She is our safety guru,” said Maust. “She drives our team in checking out safety issues for each piece of equipment and for our plant technology. She leads a group that evaluates each piece of machinery and the technician’s tasks for that machinery, and documents what is critical to the safe operation of the machine.”
The workers at the PFG plant in Vinton are highly trained in technical skills specific to the machinery that they are operating. Training is done in-house and typically takes up to a year.
When the economy took a downturn several years ago, the textile industry was especially hard hit, with jobs going to foreign markets with cheap labor. The associates at Precision Fabrics saw the writing on the wall and decided to save their plant from the fate of other textile plants.
“The demise of the American textile industry brought the associates at our Vinton plant to a new level of understanding,” said Maust. “They bought into the philosophy that this is ‘our business’ and every worker has a key part in making in making the plant successful. Every employee is equally vital to the job. Every associate is equally responsible for its success. We are blessed to have associates who bought into this business model.”
Precision Fabrics has evolved from a traditional textile company into an engineered materials business, focused on highly technical, high quality woven and nonwoven fabrics. PFG’s winning strategy now is to weave to order, to weave specialty niche products that other companies can’t or won’t produce.
Their corporate headquarters is located in Greensboro, North Carolina with plants in Vinton, in Tennessee, and in North Carolina, with sales offices in Greensboro and in Bamberg, Germany.
The Vinton PFG plant is their only weaving plant and specializes in producing some of the most technically challenging continuous filament fabrics in the world. Non-finished or “greige” fabric leaves the Vinton facility and moves to the other PFG plants or to other companies for finishing. The fabric is the product, turned into finished manufactured goods elsewhere.
The plant produces 80-100 different versions of specialty fabrics for diverse uses, from military products, including parachutes and active duty and combat uniforms, to hospital and medical products, to hypo-allergenic bedding, to window treatments. Passengers onboard the US Airways jet that crashed into the Hudson River in New York in 2009, donned life vests made of fabric produced in the Vinton plant.
According to their website “PFG can manufacture fabrics which are barriers to allergens, flame resistant, antimicrobial, or fluid and splash repellent. We helped to pioneer modern synthetic barrier fabrics that would require a microscope to see the particles blocked. Nobody in the industry has more experience with the material than Precision Fabrics. If nylon was invented on a Monday, we began weaving it on Tuesday.”
As for why PFG didn’t transfer production overseas as so many others have done, Maust has an explanation.
“You couldn’t pick up this plant and move it, and find the workers you need,” said Maust. “You need experience and buying into a philosophy from employees. Our average associate has been here 17 years. The products we make are so difficult to produce that you can’t do it offshore. In our business model, we make products no one else can make, that the customer can’t find anywhere else. Our research and development department finds solutions for issues, solutions not typically thought of. In many cases customers come to us with specific requests for things they want to try and ask us to find the solution to their specific application.”
Those passing by see the same building that has been in operation for 76 years. It’s not apparent that a state-of-the-art textile facility operates within, boasting 330,000 square feet of floor space on 30 acres of property. PFG continues to modernize its facility, adding new equipment as technology advances. In the past decade PFG underwent an “internal expansion” which created space for new high tech looms, instead of expanding the building externally.
Few are aware of what is produced in the plant. Old timers remember when the plant used to be the Roanoke Weaving Company, built in 1936, and then Burlington Industries. Actually the first product produced at the plant was typewriter ribbon, and for many years the factory made regular textile fabrics. Precision Fabrics was created in 1988 via buyout from Burlington Industries and continues as a privately-held company today.
Most people think of weaving as turning yarn or thread into fabric, interlacing lengthwise and crosswise threads on a loom. The lengthwise threads running back to front are called the warp. The crosswise threads are called the weft. A gadget called a shuttle carries the thread across the warp to make the weft. The fabric created is wound on a spool as it is woven.
While that is the general idea of weaving, that is a very simplified version of what actually goes on in the PFG plant in Vinton. The thread at PFG is actually continuous filament of many sizes, with the appearance of fishing line.
And there is no shuttle in use. The fabric is being woven by water jet, air jet, or rapier technology that is capable of shooting the weft of the thread across the loom 600-1100 times each minute, using a force of water, air, or thread grippers. The type of technology used and the speed of production depends upon the type of fabric being woven. Some styles of fabric run just a few yards of fabric an hour, others 20-25 yards per hour.
One million is a number with significance to the company today, but has also been a number with humanitarian implications in their past. One million is the number of yards of nylon filter material that Precision Fabrics donated to the World Health Organization campaign to eradicate Guinea Worm Disease in 1995. The disease is caused by drinking water contaminated by microscopic larvae, which migrate inside the victim’s body and grow into thin threadlike worms up to a yard long. The worms emerge from the body one year later through painful blisters, causing permanent scarring and polio-like crippling. In some areas of Africa over 50% of the population became disabled by the disease, which can be prevented by filtering the water. With the help of PFG, the disease has been virtually eliminated.
PFG is also part of the green revolution. All of their waste material is reused, much of it being made into various types of rope.
Several years ago hundreds of small blue tubes appeared on the lawn of the company almost overnight, protecting 1100 hardwood seedlings the company had planted to help improve the environment and the water quality on nearby Tinker Creek.
PFG is Vinton’s largest employer, and the thirteenth largest in Roanoke County. The plant is a boon to the Town of Vinton, providing about eight percent of Vinton’s business tax revenue.
“PFG is a great example of a being a good corporate citizen,” said Vinton Mayor Brad Grose. “They are very supportive of the Town.”
“Precision Fabric’s dedication to their employees has had a direct positive impact on their safety record,” said Vinton Town Manager Chris Lawrence, in congratulating them on their safety record.